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Crisis Response Journal Crisis Response Journal

Self-assembling robots and their potential uses in emergencies

Posted on 20th July 2016 at 12:28pm

During a crisis or in conditions brought on by natural disaster, responders often cannot work directly at the emergency site, owning to fire, excessive heat, flooding, or limited access, all of which can pose serious risks to emergency personnel. Such hostile conditions can also hamper the provision of medical or crisis relief, further complicating efforts to restore the area to a safe and habitable state.

The bakeable robot self assembles under high application of heat (MIT)

Recent discoveries in small robot applications have resulted in multiple robotic prototypes that can function in unique conditions, such as high temperatures, within water, and even when ingested into the body. These robots present advantages for both medical applications and in crisis response, where the usual protocols and procedures cannot take place, or are limited by the surrounding environment and circumstances.

The bakeable robot, as its name infers, self assembles under high application of heat. These robots could potentially operate in environments unsuitable for humans because they involve extremely temperatures, and can perform jobs safely without disintegrating prior to the completion of a task.

The basic structure of the devices – also nicknamed ‘origami robots’ for their folding abilities – is pre-printed and then mapped out so that when heat is administered, they fold into their 3D counterpart, ready to move.

Pre-cut slits in the material (composed of a sheet of polyvinyl chloride between two sheets of sturdy polyester) allow the structure to be manipulated to the desired end result after heat has been administered. Given that they are so small and intricate, the robots could act as surgical tools or even give biopotential feedback when wired with specific sensors. [1]

Two researchers and electrical engineers, Erik Demaine and Daniela Rus from MIT and Harvard, along with other professionals from the University of Sheffield, the University of Zurich, and the Tokyo Institute of Technology, discovered that a direct application of heat through electrical components, rather than environmental heat, allows for more complex application of the robot’s purpose. A layer of electrical leads within the multi-layer composition of the robot provides external application, similar to the external magnetic field guidance as stated above, allowing for responders to control the robot from a distance or via signals.

The experimental robot created by the researchers from Harvard and MIT contains two motors linked by a microprocessor that guide the robot’s legs to move and bear weight, permitting a degree of freedom that initiates the robot to move mechanically in response to the motor.

The design can be manufactured at a low cost, thanks to folds of 150°, coupled with a lightweight structure. These robots can therefore enter areas unsuitable for human work and can perform small tasks such as moving debris, carrying supplies, or in the future, photographing disaster sites.

In addition, these bakeable robots can move over rough terrain and up steep hills, making them all the more useful in crises of various kinds. A video of the origami bakeable robot released by MIT shows it smoothly skimming over water, fluttering up a ramp, and walking over a regular smooth surface. In the video, Rus enthusiastically explains how the robot can clear obstacles, swim, carry objects, and – at the end of its life cycle – is recyclable.

The ingestible robot is activated via biological interaction with stomach fluid (MIT)

Another type of device, the ingestible robot, is swallowed via a biodegradable capsule (made of ice or other organic material) and is activated via biological interaction with stomach fluid. Similar to the bakeable robot, discovered by Rus’ team at MIT, researchers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and the University of Sheffield, the liquid initiates a folding process that prepares it to be steered via external magnetic fields. The design of the robot allows it to depend on rotational motion for movement and steering within the stomach or lower intestines, propelled by stick-slip action and force distribution coming from the surrounding body.

Illustration of how the ingestible robot could be used (MIT)

This type of robot could potentially be used for retrieving unwanted swallowed objects or even for internal wound care applications, and it can double as a type of manual drug-delivery system.

Future applications for these types of robots hint at making them more intelligent, and lean off of human manipulation. Robots that have the ability via algorithms and planning to make their own decisions and not be driven by a pre-programmed external magnetic field could make them more applicable for disaster areas and crisis zones.

Emily Koehler; Ian PortelliCarly Esteves

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